Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bring Out Your Yarmulke


- Adam Sandler (American comedian)

            I apologize for not posting recently.  I basically was stuck between a wretched cold and too many Thanksgiving leftovers.  A place no one should be without adult supervision.  But I am on the mend, and just in time for Hanukkah (or Chanukah, Christmaska, whatever other variations you may have…).
            As you readers know, I have no real religious affiliations, except maybe to the altar of James Beard.  But when the holidays come around, I am pretty much willing to be of any religious persuasion, as long as they feed me.  And with Hanukkah around the corner, I thought it was time to bring out the famous Omnieater latke recipe.
            I first made latkes in college with my ex-boyfriend’s family.  The boyfriend didn’t last, but those latkes did (maybe the only thing I got out of that relationship).  By the time we split up, I became the honorary latke maker in their family.  Sacrilege! But who says a goy can’t make good latkes? (On the other hand, I am lousy with matzo ball soup.  They always seem to have the consistency of lead.)
            And speaking of goys, latkes are not particularly the purview of Jews (gasp!).  The potato pancake has been around the Eastern and Central European block a couple of times.  Even the Swiss, who I thought only made cuckoo clocks and milk chocolate (they can’t seem to make good dark chocolate, from my experience), have Rösti.  Denury, raggmunk, Reibekuchen – they all equal potato pancake.
            But what cannot be taken away from the Jews is the probably the greatest controversy since Zionism: The University of Chicago Latke-Hamantash[1] debate of 1946.
            The center of the debate lies in the relative (or for some people, absolute) merits of one or the other foodstuff.  According to memoirs, the first debate was not all fun and games.  The debate allowed Jewish scholars to express their ethnic/religious backgrounds without reprisal, especially in a time-period in which many Jewish scholars felt the need to “hide” their roots to gain admittance and/or acceptance to the academe.  Since then, much of the discrimination has been abated (or at least I would like to think so), but the debate has caused major rifts across American universities and colleges. Debaters have discussed a number of theories and arguments such as:
-       Allan Bloom (of Closing of the American Mind) suggested a conspiracy theory involving Sigmund Freud and the Manischewitz company.
-       Michael Silverstein, professor in anthropology, linguistics, and psychology at the University of Chicago, argued that it is not coincidental that the English translation of the letters on the dreidl spells out T-U-M-S.
-       At the Harvard University debate, law school Professor Alan Dershowitz indicted the latke as a major source of US oil dependency.
-       At the Stanford Law School debate, Constitutional Law Professor Pam Karlan quoted the majority opinion of Blackmun in the case County of Allegheny v. ACLU, which said: "It is also a custom to serve potato pancakes or other fried foods on Chanukah because the oil in which they are fried is, by tradition, a reminder of the miracle of Chanukah." She noted that the Supreme Court has yet to recognize the hamantash.
-       In the debate at MIT, Robert J. Silbey, dean of its School of Science, cited Google, which gives 380,000 hits on a search for "latke" and only 62,000 for "hamantashen". Silbey also claimed that latkes, not hamantashen, are the dark matter thought to make up over 21 percent of the mass of the universe.  Hamantashen’s role in the in the Big Bang has been noticeably absent.

As a goy, I don’t have the guts to enter this debate.  I haven’t eaten enough latkes or hamantashen to justify an opinion.  However, you might be able to give an amicus curiae for the latke by making your own.  They are time-consuming to make, but would your bubbe scrimp on love?  I think not.  And just in case you don’t have a bubbe, remember this:  Latkes = Love.

Potato Latkes
            Everyone claims his or her version is best, but in Omnieater’s objective truth, she knows that the masses are just imagining things (probably the onion juice).  Mine are the best.  There are a couple of tricks to making good latkes.  First, moisture is your enemy.  Drain the liquid out of the grated potatoes like a grandmother squeezes cheeks. Squish unmercifully.  Second, use a hand grater.  I have found that a food processor does not grate finely enough to encourage the liquid in the potatoes to seep out.  Same for the onions.  Third, use a starchy potato.  This is not a time to get fancy with potato varietals.  The fancy ones don’t have enough starch for proper greasy crispiness.  If you must go the special potato route, use Yukon Golds, which have enough starch for latkes.  And fourth, soak grated potatoes in cold water while you grate the rest (Five large Russets is a sh*tload of potatoes.  You will not have to go to the gym for a week.) This will prevent the potatoes from having that unappealing black color (this is due to oxidization). And last, if you can, use schmaltz.  Schmaltz is rendered chicken fat, but any fowl fat will do (duck or goose are the house go-to’s).  The taste beats vegetable oil with a stick. Zol zion mit Mazel!

Servings:  Uh, a lot?
5 large Russet potatoes
2 medium onions
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 tbs. of matzo meal (see note)
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
freshly ground pepper
schmaltz or neutral vegetable oil for frying
Condiments for serving (see note)

1.     Grate the potatoes and onions by hand, respectively in separate bowls, using the large holes of a box grater.  Soak grated potatoes in cold water to prevent oxidation while grating all of the potatoes
2.     Drain the potatoes.  Place drained potatoes in a dish towel and wring as much liquid as possible from the potatoes.  Do the same for the onions.  Mix grated onions with potatoes to distribute evenly.  Set aside.
3.     In a large bowl, combine eggs, matzo meal, salt, baking powder and pepper.  Mix potato-onion mass into the egg mixture until all is well blended.
4.     Heat about 2- 3 tablespoons of schmaltz or vegetable oil in a cast-iron, or similarly heavy skillet over medium heat.  When oil is hot, but not smoking, drop potato mixture in spoonfuls into pan, being careful not to overcrowd.  Flatten slightly.  When the bottoms are golden brown (about 2-4 minutes, depending on the size of your spoonful), turn over and fry the other side. Repeat as often as necessary.
5.     Drain on paper towels and serve hot. (Can be placed in a 250F oven to keep warm while the rest are frying)
Note: Matzo meal can be found in the kosher food section of the grocery store.  Latkes can be served with a number of accompaniments: applesauce, sour cream (crème fraiche), sour cream and caviar, sour cream and finely diced chives, sour cream and smoked salmon, sour cream with lemon zest.  The possibilities are endless – unless mom is making them.  Then you have no choice in the matter.


[1] A little cultural history may be in order here.  Latkes are potato pancakes fried in oil to celebrate how 1 day’s worth of oil lit a temple for eight days.  Hamantashen are triangular shaped pastries with either a poppy-seed or fruit filling which are traditionally consumed during the Jewish holiday of Purim.

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